With the EU scrambling to find a way to achieve net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, the European Commission just released a proposal to allow counting methane in the form of natural gas and nuclear power as its sustainable energy plan for the rest of the century.
Under the European Commission's new proposal for collectively meeting a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, electricity plants like the Cruas Nuclear Power Station in France are about to become far more common. Photo: Yelkrokyade, CC
The proposal was published in draft form to EU member states on New Year’s Eve, likely in the hopes that the craziness of the proposal would fly low under the news radar.
It did not work out that way.
The European Commission (EC) had been struggling with how to make major reductions in its overall greenhouse gas emissions, as part of its obligations to help save the Earth from killing itself by committing at a tumultuous meeting in December 2019 to become “carbon neutral” by 2050.
It had unfortunately allowed coal-fired power production to proceed too long, did not invest fast enough in renewable energy alternatives such as solar and wind, and was unwilling to order the tough changes in energy usage which might have lowered emissions but at a cost of cratering the economies of the entire European Union.
The EC also realized it had no easy way to dodge its responsibilities to come up with some sort of global heating mitigation plan, especially after this summer’s climate-crisis-driven torrential rains ripped parts of Germany, Belgium, and other EU nations apart this summer. In other years, wildfires and heat waves also directly tied to increased greenhouse gas emissions ravaged many parts of Europe.
After all that, the EC did finally release its proposal this weekend for what to do about its 2050 carbon neutrality goal. But what it came up with is, without mincing words, unbelievably stupid.
It proposed that the EU member states commit not to radical energy-use cutbacks or incentivized transitions to renewable energy, but instead to major expansions in the use of gas-powered power plants or nuclear energy.
Why Relying on Natural Gas is a Bad Solution
Just on the surface of it, the use of natural gas power plants, which use methane as the energy source, as a means of achieving net zero carbon emissions is absurd. Methane is a power source which is even more dangerous than carbon dioxide when its emissions make their way into the atmosphere, with as much as 80 times the power of CO2 in trapping solar energy close to the Earth’s surface.
The EC’s proposal argues those plants should be considered “green” enough provided they meet the current toughest standards for controlling methane leaks. Those requirements limit total methane emissions from the power plants to just 100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of energy.
Even if such controls were sustainable for the long term, natural gas power plants cannot possibly be considered as low emissions unless the entire supply chain for the methane they use is also controlled. Such controls would have to begin at where the natural gas is harvested out of the ground or deep under the sea, including all exploratory wells. It would then pass through enormous and lengthy pipelines to storage tanks, along rail and road transportation systems, and to facilities close to the power plants. For use as a transportation power source, natural gas has other steps in its delivery process.
All parts of that distribution channel would also need to be protected against leaks due to extreme weather events, earthquakes, floods, and temperatures which will still range from very cold in parts of the winter to very hot in the summer.
During the Polar Vortex events which hit the central southern United States in February 2021, such extreme freezing conditions resulted in large-scale failures and leaks in natural gas pipelines present there.
While the EC may also claim securing both the plants and the supply chain is possible, the plan it released does not explain how that would happen. It is especially concerning considering the many sources for natural gas the European Union draws on for its methane fuel. A large portion of the EU's natural gas comes from Russia and its massively leaky production and distribution system and which the EU has no authority to regulate. The liquefied natural gas (LNG) imported from the U.S. is primarily from fracking, which is the dirtiest source of natural gas.
The Nuclear Power Option
That the European Community selected nuclear power as the other option to achieving its net zero emissions goals is of little surprise. France, for example, already relies on it for over 70 percent of its electrical power. It is also working rapidly to upgrade its existing reactors to produce more power and theoretically make them safer. The country also has structured its energy economy to build even more nuclear plants in the years ahead.
France also happens to be the country which has been passed the rotating leadership position for the European Union in 2022. Shifting away from this option by just three decades from now would require costly decommissioning of the plants in which it has already invested.
Germany, on the other hand, believes that nuclear power plants, which will leave in their wake toxic radioactive waste which will last for millennia into the future, are an even worse idea.
“We consider nuclear technology to be dangerous,” said Steffen Hebestreit, a German government spokesman, during a briefing with reporters about his country’s position on the new EC proposal.
Hebestreit expressed frustration that the EC could proceed with such recommendations, saying his country has “expressly rejected” atomic energy as a solution many times.
What Germany plans to do instead is, according to the spokesman, to rely on natural gas power as a “bridge technology” for now. It claims to recognize the dangers in continuing to use natural gas for long. It is instead planning to replace it with hydrogen fuels generated using a renewable energy feed process. The country is also backing plans to upgrade current natural gas supply pipelines so they can be used in the future to deliver hydrogen throughout the country, something it should have been doing long ago.
German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck took an even tougher stance on the EC recommendations.
“[Identifying nuclear energy as a clean option] is more than dubious,” Habeck said. “It’s questionable anyway if this greenwashing would find any kind of acceptance on the financial market.”
German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, a member of the country’s Green Party was also appalled by the EC recommendations.
“I find it completely wrong that the European Commission is intending to classify nuclear as a sustainable economic activity,” he said in an interview with the Funke media group.
Despite the protests from these German leaders regarding nuclear power, most countries in the EU are strong backers of that option and that part of the plan is expected to be approved easily. And with the use of natural gas power as the other cornerstone in the EC’s recommendations being shrouded in positions as the one Germany takes, that using natural gas is mostly just a “bridge,” the other half of the EU plan has a strong chance of emerging victorious in the final iteration of the plan.
Member states have until January 12 to respond with recommended changes to the EC’s proposal. If it is passed substantially as written, it will go into effect one year from now.